Author: Kurt Helin

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks

Breaking down Eastern Conference playoff chase with two weeks left in season

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There are just more than two weeks left in the NBA regular season — 16 days if you want to be specific — and the playoff matchups are starting to take shape. But there is still a lot in flux.

Let’s take a look at the East, where the top seed is set, the two seed might as well be, and after that things get interesting. Particularly with the eighth seed, which may be the best race in the NBA this year and could go down to the final day.

No. 1 seed: The Atlanta Hawks have officially locked up the top spot. They have home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and their stars will get a lot of rest the next couple weeks.

No. 2 seed: The Cleveland Cavaliers might as well have locked up the second seed. Cleveland has a 2.5 game lead over Chicago with eight games left to play, and the Cavs have the tiebreaker (their magic number is six). The Cavs and Bulls do play next Sunday, if you’re a Bulls fan looking for some hope.

No. 3-5 seeds: This most likely ends up with the Chicago Bulls in the three seed, the Toronto Raptors fourth and the Washington Wizards fifth. The current three seed Bulls are 1.5 games ahead of Toronto, but what the Raptors have in their favor is an easy games coming up — after Houston Monday night they do not face another team over .500 the rest of the season. The Bulls schedule isn’t much tougher, but Toronto might get on a run and push Chicago for the three spot. Washington is the current five seed and would need to make up two games on Toronto to get home-court in the first round. That doesn’t seem likely. First off, the Wizards are stumbling, having lost five of six. Second, they have a tougher schedule down the stretch with five road games including at Memphis and at Cleveland.

No. 6 seed: They had been slumping, but after the Milwaukee Bucks beat Miami and Indiana on a back-to-back last week they put themselves in the driver’s seat for this slot. The Bucks have a two-game lead over Miami entering play Monday night (they are four games clear of falling out of the playoffs, which is highly unlikely). The challenge for the Bucks is a tough schedule ahead: Atlanta, Chicago and Boston are the first three up this week; Cleveland is still out there on the horizon. None the less, expect the Bucks to land here.

No. 7-8 seeds: This could go just about any direction. Here is where things stand now:

7. Miami (34-39)
8. Brooklyn (-1.5 games)
9. Boston (-2 games)
10. Indiana (-2 games)
11. Charlotte (-2.5 games)

These teams also play each other plenty the rest of the way — it’s a big week for Indiana if they are going to make a move. Here are the games just for this week:

Charlotte at Boston (Monday)
Indiana at Brooklyn (Tuesday)
Indiana at Boston (Wednesday)
Charlotte at Indiana (Friday)
Miami at Indiana (Sunday)

And that’s not including Boston playing Milwaukee and Toronto, or a host of other interesting games on the docket. It’s especially hard to break down how this will shake out because these are flawed teams that are stumbling toward the finish line — every time you think “this team has got it together” they lose four in a row. Right now, the Hornets seems to be the team least likely to climb their way back in, but anything could happen. This is the one race in both conferences that could come down to the final night.

Five Things We Learned in NBA Sunday: Dwyane Wade is going to will Heat into playoffs

Dwyane Wade; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while imagining your texts if an angry Yo-Yo Ma was in your living room

1) Dwyane Wade drops 40, is going to will Heat into playoffs. With just a couple weeks left in the NBA season, Miami may not yet be  a lock to make the playoffs. However, they now have a two-game cushion over the nine seed Boston Celtics, and it feels like Miami is going to find its way into the dance as the seven seed (and almost certainly face Cleveland in the first round). All thanks to Dwyane Wade. He’s been on fire of late and dropped 40 on the Pistons Sunday in a game that continued Miami’s trend of players dropping like flies. Chris Bosh is out for the season recovering from blood clots in his lungs. Hassan Whiteside and Chris Andersen were already out injured for the night. Then Luol Deng suffered a contusion his knee and left not to return after halftime. With all that Wade had to take charge, and he did — 40 points on 14-for-27 from the floor and 12-for-13 from the free throw line. Wade did it without hitting a three. He was getting to the rim like a younger Wade, making shots in the paint, plus going 6-of-12 from the midrange.

2) The Rockets never win pretty, but they do win and are now the second seed in the West. Much like how James Harden racks up his points, how the Rockets keep racking up wins is not aesthetically pleasing. It just works. It worked Sunday as the Rockets held on to beat the Wizards 99-91, which combined with Memphis’ loss puts Houston into the two seed out west. This time it wasn’t all James Harden, rather it was Josh Smith putting up points to open the game, it was Pablo Prigioni controlling the game in the fourth quarter. The  Wizards are a floundering team right now, and the Rockets did let them hang around. But anytime the Wizards seemed to get close, Houston went on a little run. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to pick up their 50th win and get the two seed (at least for a day).

3) Oklahoma City beat Phoenix and all but clinched a playoff spot. The sun set on the Phoenix’s playoff chances Sunday — with their loss to Oklahoma City the Suns are four games back with eight to play. (The Pelicans are 2.5 games back.) Mathematically everything is possible, realistically the Thunder are going to get the eight seed in the West. Sunday’s game had the feel of a playoff game. Phoenix was desperate to get the win, hit everything early; Markieff Morris had 16 first quarter points and the Suns led by 20 in the second quarter. Then the Thunder run started. There was a 17-4 run in the second quarter, then another 17-7 one in the third and we had a ballgame. The 13-0 OKC run in the fourth was pretty much the end of it. Russell Westbrook led the way, of course, dropping 33.

4) Brook Lopez had a 30 point, 11 rebound game to put Nets back in playoffs (for a day). If the playoffs started today, we would have to suffer through a round with the Brooklyn Nets in it. Sorry. At least they will get swept by the Hawks. But as bad as the Nets are they are too much for the Lakers right now. Brook Lopez has again become the focal point of the Nets’ offense, averaging 28.8 points per game over the last six, and that may be enough to keep them ahead of Boston. Or not. I’m not going to try to predict the teams stumbling to the finish line in the East.

5) San Antonio beat Memphis as these teams continue to trend in opposite directions. The Spurs have won three in a row, seven of their last 10, Tony Parker is getting in the lane, Tiago Splitter is making plays, and the Spurs are getting some big games from Kawhi Leonard. Sunday Leonard  had 15 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, shooting 6-of-7 in that final frame, to lead the Spurs to a 103-89 win over the Grizzlies. The Spurs are healthy again and look like a team that nobody’s going to want to face come the playoffs. A team that could come out of the West. Meanwhile, Memphis has lost three in a row. Granted, to the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Spurs, so it’s hard to read too much into that (if they lose to the Kings in their next game…). Still, if the Grizzlies are going to be title contenders, these are the kinds of games you’d think they would win some of.

DeAndre Jordan with a ridiculous alley-oop finish, even for him (VIDEO)

DeAndre Jordan, Evan Turner
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We have become desensitized to alley-oops from Chris Paul to DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin. We’ve seen so many amazing ones they seem routine.

But even for Jordan, this one is pretty spectacular. That pass was up in the rafters and behind him, just didn’t matter.

The Clippers put the beat down on the Celtics, leading by 35 at one point. Then Doc Rivers tried to play his bench. Then that lead shrunk to 13 points, and the Clippers had to bring their starters back in. Then came hack-a-DJ. The Clippers still won, but it was a lot harder than it should have been.

 

Sad news: Craig Sager announces his cancer has returned

Nebraska v Baylor
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It was just a few weeks back we were all celebrating the return of Craig Sager and his legendary suits to the sidelines of TNT games. The popular sideline reporter had been out 11 months battling leukemia but had made it all the way back.

Sunday afternoon came some sad news: Sager’s cancer has returned.

His son Craig Sager II made the announcement.

Every basketball fan is behind Sager and his family right now, with thoughts and prayers flowing his way.

I can’t wait until he beats it again and returns to the sideline with his entertaining brand of optimistic reports. And, of course, those suits.

Enes Kanter soaks up Jazz fans’ boos, but Thunder lose

Oklahoma City Thunder v Utah Jazz
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Enes Kanter described his time in Utah as three and a half years of frustration and said at shootaround Saturday, “I’m definitely happy that I’m part of the Oklahoma City team like that, a winner team…. It wasn’t just basketball stuff. It was just professionalism. After I see OKC, then I was like, this is how NBA teams are.”

You knew that was not going to sit well with the loyal fans in Utah. They let Kanter hear it with a rain of boos — and he soaked it up WWE style.

The Jazz are 13-7 since they traded Kanter and are playing the best defense in the NBA in that stretch. Kanter and the Thunder are still fighting to make the playoffs out West. The mature move would have been to not motivate a team you need to beat in the dog days of the season. But Kanter wasn’t mature, he made this about himself and him getting to vent.

Gordon Hayward said after the game the comments did motivate the Jazz, who won 94-89.

Kanter could be frustrated with the previous coaching staff in Utah, but he had a chance at a fresh start under Quin Snyder this season. Yet, because he is a weak defender Kanter became the third wheel of the big man rotation (behind Derrick Favors and the emerging Rudy Gobert). His issues should not be with anybody but himself. He’s always been able to score, and because the Thunder need post scoring he’s putting up career-best numbers with them, but his defense remains a serious issue for OKC. There was a reason Scott Brooks tried to pair him constantly with Serge Ibaka, but that’s not an option anymore (Ibaka is out following knee surgery). I’m happy for Kanter that he feels he’s in a better place now, but he did not handle his return to Utah well at all.